P aris: The meteoric rise of a natural, healthy alternative to sugar – a holy grail for the food industry – might just be a little too good to be true.
In two years stevia, a plant used for centuries by Paraguay’ s G uarani Indians, has shot to prominence in products by Coca-Cola, Danone and Merisant.
Encouraged by distrust of artificial sweeteners and demand for natural products, they have turned to extract of stevia, which is up to 300 times sweeter than traditional beet or cane sugar.
The problems are the aftertaste, the cost, and possible hurdles in defining it as natural in some European Union markets.
Initial sales and projections are impressive but the plant’s extracts have a strong aftertaste, often compared to liquorice, and are far more expensive than artificial sweeteners including aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.
To ease stevia’s taste products like French sugar maker Tereos’ Beghin-Say and Coca-Cola’s Fanta Still – trialed with stevia – still include sugar in their recipe
Tereos PureCircle said that out of the 604 new products containing extracts of stevia launched worldwide in 2010 – up from 373 in 2009 – 60 percent still contained sugar.
Poor consumer feedback also led dairy giant Danone to work on a new recipe for its stevia yoghurts marketed under its leading low-calorie brand Taillefine in 2010.
“We are trying to find solutions to erase this liquorice taste but it’s not easy,” Marilise Marcantonio, communication director for Danone Fresh Products, said. “Consumers are looking for natural products – but not at any price.”
Some scientists also note that a technique to extract Rebania-A, derived from stevia leaves, through ethanol, rather than water, to obtain purer and sweeter products could mean stevia may not be able to be marketed as “natural” in some EU countries, undermining the current marketing strategy.
“They are advertising stevia as a miracle,” marketing consultant Sam Waterfall said. “If consumers begin to feel they are misled, this could be a real disaster.”